BSE sheep can pass disease to offspring

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Fears that sheep throughout Europe could be infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), posing a wide risk to human health, continued to grow yesterday as confused statements in Brussels failed to ease the alarm.

Although European Commission officials insisted that a proposed ban on sheep brains, spleen and nervous tissue was "precautionary", they said little to reassure consumers that lamb and mutton is completely safe to eat. Publicly, commission spokesmen attempted to play down the dangers of BSE in sheep, raised on Monday when Franz Fischler, the Agriculture Commissioner, proposed a European Union ban on sheep offal.

Douglas Hogg, the agriculture minister, who will announce Government measures to tackle any BSE risk from sheep today, also denied there was a threat from British lamb and declared it safe to eat yesterday.

He said: "What we are dealing with is a theoretical risk. It has been found that it is possible to transmit BSE to sheep and therefore out of an abundance of caution the various advisers have recommended that we exclude various parts of the carcass which are not actually eaten anyway."

However, the private assessments made yesterday by senior Commission veterinary experts suggests far deeper concern.

From the few facts available, it is clear that the European Commission's proposal to ban sheep offal was based on scientific evidence that sheep can be infected with mad cow disease. The evidence stems from laboratory research and there is no proof that any farm-reared sheep have become infected. Commission experts said this scientific evidence shows that if sheep are infected with BSE, the disease can be transmitted from mother to offspring - which has not been proved to happen in cattle.

Infected sheep would pose a greater risk to human health because the "dosage" of the lethal BSE protein found in the sheep organs during the experimental infection was far higher than the dosage in cattle. The disease was also found in more organs in sheep than it has been in cattle, including the placenta. Commission experts also say that it is "impossible" to know for sure if sheep are contracting BSE or not, because scrapie - a nervous disease that is common in sheep - produces similar symptoms. If sheep are contracting BSE it would probably be through eating infected cattle offal.

Commission spokesmen insisted yesterday that once action had been taken to remove the "at-risk organs" from lamb and older sheep the meat itself would be safe to eat. However, the Commission could not explain why the same approach was not applied to cattle. There was no guidance about the safety of sheep meat before the precautions are in place. And there was no guidance about how often the "at-risk" organs find their way into human food.

The evidence which sparked Mr Fischler's announcement that sheep may also contract BSE was gathered by the Edinburgh Institute of Animal Health, and published in the Veterinary Record on 1 June. The research showed that sheep, fed with minced brains of cattle infected with BSE, could contract the disease.

BSE in cattle is thought to be caused by feeding the animals with sheep offal infected with scrapie. The Edinburgh research is understood to be the first proof that BSE can be passed back to sheep. Whereas scrapie is not believed to pose any risk to humans, BSE does.